HomeBears must be smart with Justin Fields injured

Bears must be smart with Justin Fields injured

Bears coach Matt Nagy had no update on Monday on the status of rookie Justin Fields in Sunday’s game against the Cardinal.

Fields is recovering from a rib fracture he suffered against the Ravens on November 21. Andy Dalton starts against the Lions on Thanksgiving, giving Fields two weeks to recover.

But what is the rush?

With Fields clearly in a development phase, and arguably giving the Bears a good – if not a better – chance of winning, Nagy and the Bears should take their time with the iconic rookie and make sure he fully recovers from his injury. Why risk aggravating the injury?

That’s the beauty–perhaps the only beauty–of the 17-game schedule that has expanded the NFL this season. It allows the Bears to take their time with the fields and continue to get him four or even five more games of NFL experience he needs before the 2022 season.

At this point, it’s basically load management – a foreign concept in the NFL with 16- and 17-game tables where each game equals 10 MLB games or five NBA or NHL games.

But with the wear factor greater than ever in the NFL, the leave is important. Giving players more time to recover from injuries ranging from bumps and bruises to broken ribs can generally be beneficial.

This is sacrilege in the NFL, as players are conditioned to play whenever they can. In fact, the NFL for years despised “100 percent” – a player who will only play when he is 100% healthy – in a sport where there is distinct value to the players who will be taken off the team.

But as heroic as it may be, the “player” mentality has its downside in a sport where the physical toll is rapidly increasing.

Full-back Khalil Mack’s heart and desire are unquestionable – he’s played through bumps, bruises or worse throughout his career. Last season he was on the injury report in 13 of 17 games with the Bears with various injuries (knee, back, ankle and shoulder) – and was listed as questionable for ten of them. However, he never missed a match.

But at the age of 30, she took it easy this season when his relatively slight crooked foot turned into surgery at the end of the season.

Mack struggled with the injury against Brown in Week 3 – and he still wants to finish that match. He played through injury for the next four games, and instead of getting better the injury became more and more problematic. Mack missed matches against the 49ers and Steelers and after a farewell week the injured reserve was put in and it was decided to have surgery.

If Mac had undergone pregnancy management and not played against the undefeated Lions a week after initially being injured, would he be on the international stage today? Nobody knows, but this approach will likely do more good than harm.

Nagy did not regret playing Mack during the injury rather than take a more cautious approach. They never did.

“No,” Nagy said emphatically. “Not him and us and everything we did. You get to the point where you try to play and make the right decision every week for him. Whatever he can do for himself will help us if he can play.”

The Bears are starting to lighten the load on Mac this season. Mack played 91% and 90% of defensive picks in his last two seasons with the Raiders and 91% of shots in the last six games of the 2018 season with the Bears after losing them when he missed training camp entirely and pre-qualified on a reluctant contract. He played 86% of shots in 2019, 84% in 2020 and 81% of shots in the first two games of this season before the injury.

Linebackers coach Bill Shuey hasn’t dismissed the idea that the NFL could head into the load management territory.

“It could be,” Shuey said. “I don’t think it’s as common as you see in the NBA, but it’s something you factor in, in terms of the number of reps. You want to make sure when you have guys at certain stages in their careers that you take care of them. You want to make sure the reps are competent when you can.”

Reducing the burden calls for watching the star defenses of the Bears age. Defensive end Achim Hicks – another notable fighter – suffered a thigh injury in his first match against the Lions on October 3. The 32-year-old Hicks missed the next game against the Raiders, but came back against the Packers and exacerbated an injury to a sack from Aaron Rodgers. He missed the next game against the Buccaneers and returned against the 49ers, but he picked up an ankle injury and hasn’t played since.

Midfielder Danny Trevathan wasted time in training camp with a sore knee, playing the pre-season final against the Titans – where he intercepted his last game – but started the season on the injured reserve. He returned in week five against the Raiders and played five matches (with one start) before being put into the injured reserve with a recurring knee injury.

Football, though, is a sport that lives according to the “next man” philosophy — even if that means replacing Khalil Mack with Travis Gibson and Cassius Marsh, or replacing Achim Hicks with Mario Edwards Jr and Angelo Blackson. This sport isn’t meant for load management – even if it would prevent Khalil Mac from missing the last 10 games of the season. In the NFL, it’s all about now and then. It is a sport that lives in the moment rather than thinking about tomorrow.

“It’s not like other sports where you play a lot of games,” said Bears defense coordinator Shaun Desai. “Every game here is important. When you come down to tie breaks and those [playoff berth] Scenarios, every one is important.

“So these guys are preparing for a full year to play 17. And we will be working on a week to week basis all the players – injured or not – according to our best plan to make sure the players are in the best position to play.”

22-year-old Fields may be a special case. Although we will see, because Nagy loves his strength.

“Everyone probably deals with injury differently,” Nagy said. “Some are able to do that and get over it. Others might think about it more. I think with Justin, he’s very strong and I think I know which side he’s on.”

But it’s hard to believe Nagy would take any unnecessary risks, especially with a midfielder who loves to run.

“Once we get the approval from the coaches, the doctors and the players that they’re good to go, you’ll say, ‘Okay, we’re rolling now,’ right?” Nagy said. “But at the same time you have to be aware [Fields] Not receiving any additional hits or weaknesses. It’s definitely something we want to look into.

“It’s not just the running part. When you fall backwards and go throw, sometimes you expose your chest or your ribs. We put it all together and do what’s best for him and us.”